RENO, Nev. —Marcie Stetler has made a living by cooking for well-to-do clients and family gatherings in the South Lake Tahoe area for the past 11 years. But even though she has cut her labor rates by 25 percent, Stetler — like other personal chefs in the Truckee Meadows — says it’s becoming much more difficult to turn a healthy profit providing home-cooked meals for others.
Many personal chefs are turning to catering services to drive revenues, while others are holding cooking classes and partnering with local gyms to provide healthy diets to weight-conscious members.
Stetler says wealthy Lake Tahoe residents provided a steady income that continued to carry her through the past few years. But another large group of customers — middle-class folks that gather at Lake Tahoe for bachelorette parties, family reunions or ski vacations — have cut their spending by more than 50 percent in the past two years.
“They want to have good time, but they have already rented a nice place and they can’t do it all,” Stetler says. “Either they go skiing, or they have a personal chef. They had to choose, whereas before they would do it all; everyone was living pretty extravagantly. Now they are having to make choices, and a personal chef is an extra thing to have.”
Reducing her labor rate has helped offset tightened consumer spending. So has working with customers to provide simpler cooking services such as less-elaborate three-course meals featuring comfort foods over haute cuisine.
Personal chefs typically charge a flat fee for their services based on location, number of guests, and complexity of menu items. Groceries are an extra charge. Most provide grocery-shopping services along with meals, which are packaged and stored in the refrigerator or freezer for use during the week.
If a well-established personal chef with a list of wealthy clientele is struggling with the economic downturn, it’s been even harder for those trying to break into the business.
Rachael Krysiak, owner of Rachael K’s Home Cookin,’ has been a personal chef for just over a year, but she’s worked in the food service industry for many years. Building up a clientele has been harder than she imagined, she says.
“No one trusts you until they taste your food,” Krysiak says.
Krysiak cooks her meals at One World Kitchen on Spice Islands Drive in Sparks. Krysiak rents time by the hour at One World Kitchen based on her volume of weekly orders. Personal chefs must use a commercial kitchen to prepare meals or work out of client’s homes.
Krysiak has tried several different avenues to boost her business but found that hosting tasting parties has been the most effective marketing tool. Advertising with Web sites such as LivingSocial and Groupon proved troublesome.
“That experience was a challenge for my business,” Krysiak says. “I received over 300 orders for a sample pack which was delivered to their house — it kept the personal out of my personal chef business. I became a production kitchen, but not a lot of those clients were repeat customers, so I lost money on that deal.”
Her business benefited greatly from the Web exposure, though: It now ranks near the top of Google search results.
Personal chefs who are still building up a loyal following often work full or part time jobs to increase household income. Evan Berry, a May 2010 graduate of the culinary arts program at Truckee Meadows Community College, founded Culinary Ventures in 2009. Berry still does a few turns a weeks parking cars at a local casino, a job he’s held for many years, as he builds his customer base.
His biggest challenge: Finding new clients without any advertising or a large social media presence. Personal references have helped, as has large stick-on advertising magnets he placed on his Honda Prius.
“It’s tough. A lot of people have cut the fat out and don’t want extra services,” Berry says. “They go other ways. There are a lot cheaper ways to eat — McDonald’s and Burger King — but you sacrifice nutrition.”
Cristen Bridges of Cristen’s Cuisine says her business also is a part-time venture. Bridges is thinking of expanding into catering to increase revenues, but she has yet to fulfill licensing requirements. Many personal chefs have found that cooking for large functions such as corporate parties and weddings provides crucial revenue and leads to new clientele, while others have found success through strategic partnerships. Brandy Hackbarth, owner of Dining By Design, notes on her Web site that she partnered with South Reno Athletic Club and Reno Age Management Institute to provide clients with customized meals and diet plans.
Vince Likar, executive director of the United States Personal Chef Association, says partnerships and specialized cooking, such as gluten-free and diabetic diets, are becoming common throughout the industry. Another growing trend: People hiring personal chefs for entertaining guest at their homes.
“A lot of chefs that are specializing are actually growing their business right now,” Likar says. “Partnerships are certainly growing as well. Chefs are advertising their services to gyms, and that has been a great fit for them; it’s a great place to find business, and gyms can bring people that need help with diets.”
Despite the challenges associated with making a living as a personal chef, Krysiak says one thought keeps her motivated to persevere.
“Every time I think about giving up I think of a big basket of greasy chicken wings — that is the only job you can get as a cook these days. Most of time you will be short-order cook flipping burgers, and that is just not what I want to do,” she says.